It was at an ACDA (American Choral Director’s Association) convention several years ago that I first heard a work by the then impossibly young Norwegian composer, Oja Gjeilo. One is immediately struck by the sheer beauty of sound, created by an understanding of the choral instrument—voice timbre, breath, vowel—employed in layers, creating harmonies that are dissonant yet strangely shimmering and otherworldly in their effect. This is immediately apparent in the opening movement of Sunrise Mass, appropriately titled “The Spheres,” where the double choruses overlap, not just in time, one following the other, but harmonically, where the new chord/cluster overlays the existing one. The layering applies to the text as well, with one chorus completing the word or phrase begun by the other chorus. This all occurs in a very slow tempo, blurring any sense of gravity-driven beat or pulse, truly creating an aura of “the spheres.” The melodic motif embedded in this nebulous opening coalesces and gathers form as the movement assumes more traditional shape. But the “music of the spheres” returns at the opening of the fourth movement, and is probably the signature sound of the entire work.
Gjeilo says of his initial idea in Sunrise Mass, “I wanted the musical development of the Mass to go from the most transparent and spacey, to something completely earthy and grounded; from nebulous and pristine to more emotional and dramatic, and eventually warm and solid, as a metaphor for human development from child to adult, or as a spiritual journey. I always want there to be a positive evolution in artistic expressions; to move everything forward to transcend conflict and dissonance, by going through it, not avoiding it. Ideally, it has the capacity to help bring us deeper into ourselves rather than the other way….”
“Sunrise” allows the strings to set the scene, using variants of the “Kyrie” motif, which the sopranos echo. Daylight appears. The music gathers energy and direction, culminating in a broad, grand, and glorious statement of “Domine Deus, Rex caelestis” (Our God, King of the heavens”), before a recap of the wake-up motif. The movement ends with a quiet, grateful “amen.”
As the title implies, “The City” features an active, at times truly agitated string accompaniment which suggests the busy, restless nature of human activity. Layered over this, the traditional “Credo” text unfolds. Altos freely chant the “et incarnatus est,” interrupted by the full chorus cry of “crucifixus,” using the melodic material from the opening movement, truly linking the celestial to the human at its most cruel. The “Et resurrexit,” usually a jubilant moment in the mass, here is set very quietly for a cappella chorus with solo cello, a truly stunningly beautiful moment of grateful reflection. The bustle of the city resumes and the movement culminates with a strong, affirmative “amen.”
The final movement has two sections—“Identity,” which is an exact reprise of the music of the spheres that opened the work, then “The Ground,” where the chorus swells with the familiar strains of a hymn, one of the most musically ’grounded’ and recognizable of styles. The work closes gently with the chorus’s traditional plea for peace (“dona nobis pacem”), the final “amens” accompanied by an ethereal solo violin.
–Barbara Jones, March 2017